Nishinari is widely reputed to be the most run-down, crime-ridden, and dangerous part of Osaka—and about as close to a slum as you are likely to find anywhere in Japan. This may explain the preponderance of cheap backpacker accommodation in Shinimamiya, the area just south of Shinsekai 新世界 (literally “New World”), where I stayed for a single night last May before returning to Taiwan 台灣. Although I only had a few hours to work with I couldn’t resist wandering around Nishinari to see just how bad it was. I figured it couldn’t be any worse than the Downtown Eastside, the festering carbuncle of Vancouver, which I had wandered through on many occasions.
When I arrived at my hotel from Nara it was already late in the afternoon. I dropped my stuff off in what amounted to a musty tatami mat jail cell—though for about USD$15 a night I was not complaining—and raced downstairs to hit the streets and capture something of Nishinari’s seedy charm and faded glamour.
My first stop was Shinsekai proper, the old neighbourhood just north of the railway line loosely modeled on Paris and New York City. It was mostly empty, with just a few stragglers passing through, most of them looking like they were on their way home from work. It was not a lively place, nor was there an unusual degree of decay (based on what I’m used to, namely Taiwan 台灣), but it was clear that the place had seen better days.
One of the more mysterious features of the urban landscape of Osaka is the Billiken, a cherubic statue emblazoned with the description “The God Of Things As They Ought To Be”. I knew nothing more than that at the time but have done some reading into the topic since then. Turns out these idols are American in origin and they came to the creator in a dream. Deposit a coin in the box and rub the feet of the Billiken and your wish may come true.
Tsūtenkaku 通天閣 is the name of the towering landmark at the heart of Shinsekai. Built in 1956, this retrofuturistic throwback is the second tower to stand at this location. The first was dismantled for the war effort in 1943 after suffering a fire. It has the look of something from the dawn of the Space Age.
Having completed a brief tour of Shinsekai I circled back to the other side of the railway line and began my exploration of the streets to the south. I didn’t have far to go before chancing upon a bunch of old people sprawled out in front of a boarded-up storefront sorting cans and smoking cigarettes. I made my way deeper into the sketch, passing 100 yen vending machines, crummy karaoke bars, and cheap grocery stores. There were many street people around, almost all of them old men, barely sparing me a glance. I certainly looked out of place, bouncing around corners with my DSLR camera in hand, but I never felt like I was in any real danger.
With a rosy orange glow consuming the western sky I arrived in Tobita Shinchi 飛田新地, a traditional district surrounded on all sides by the urban decay of Nishinari. I hadn’t any idea what I had stumbled upon at first. The buildings were all historic in appearance, much more so than anything else I saw during my brief time in Osaka, and the area was clean and well-kept, faintly illuminated by orb-like street lights and paper lanterns wrapped in plastic to protect them from the rain. Each business was identified by a glowing white sign over the doorway, most of them in kanji. It felt like a place out of time, a throwback to the pre-modern era.
Tobita Shinchi revealed its nature to me as soon as I wandered into view of the first doorway, or genkan 玄関. Here, old women perch on small chairs, sizing up potential customers with strategically placed mirrors. Many made inviting gestures, others turned aside and ignored me as I sauntered on, a loose grip on my camera to indicate understanding of the unspoken rules of the district. Beyond the threshold, inside every open doorway, incredibly bright lights shone down on a raised dais surrounded by ornate floral arrangements, decorations, and maneki-neko 招き猫 (literally “beckoning cat”, a lucky talisman seen in East Asian businesses all around the world). The centerpiece of these lavish displays: a woman kneeling in supplication, fancifully dressed to suit all kinds of fantasies, dazzling eyes and a wide beaming smile hoping to close the sale. And it just goes on and on like this, street after street.
I didn’t do anything more than window shop, not having the time, the money, the need, nor the inclination to find out what goes on upstairs. Even so, I have to admit that this part of my tour of Nishinari was as fascinating as it was unexpected. I have wandered around several of the infamous red light districts of Bangkok and Amsterdam, most of which were more melancholic than they were titillating, but Tobita Shinchi, by opening a window into a forgotten past, was almost bewitching in a way. I don’t mean to glorify it, for there are no doubt some ethical issues to consider, but walking through the area was an interesting cultural experience I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to adventurous travelers. Be respectful if you do pass through—and not only because the whole operation is reputedly run by yakuza.
I wandered deeper into Nishinari, following the many shōtengai 商店街 (covered shopping streets) more or less at random, most of them lined with metal shutters that might not have been opened in years. Maybe one in ten shops were open, most of them dingy karaoke bars or dollar stores, although several of the cut-rate grocers and pachinko parlours appeared to be doing a brisk trade.
Day turned to night and my feet began to swell from the amount of walking I had done these few days in Japan. Without suitable lighting for even grainy, low-quality photos, I made my way back to my hotel. I hadn’t a map nor cellular access so I navigated by instinct, thankfully without mishap.
On the uneventful walk back I pondered Nishinari’s notorious reputation. Was it really all that dangerous or merely poor? Had I been lucky? Most of the time I felt like a ghost passing through the ward, capturing moments without interacting with anyone hardly at all. No understanding seemed to pass between me and another mortal soul. I can’t even recall making eye contact with anyone apart from the old women of Tobita Shinchi.
Later on I took a brief trip to Dotonbori for a more conventional tourist experience. I passed through Shinsekai once more, curious to see if it had come alive at night, but it wasn’t any busier than when I was there in the late afternoon. I wondered, is this what people wish of the Billiken? Is this how it ought to be?